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Court upholds Corsican separatist's murder verdict

From L-C, Gilles Simeoni, Pascal Garbarini, Antoine Sollacaro and Eric Dupont-Moretti, the lawyers representing Yvan Colonna, speak to the media after a guilty verdict was pronounced at the Paris courts June 20, 2011. Yvan Colonna, a Corsican shepherd accused of murdering Claude Erignac, a top French official, was previously sentenced in 2007 and 2009 to life in jail for the 1998 murder. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) - A French court upheld on Monday earlier guilty verdicts against a Corsican separatist for the 1998 murder of the government’s top official on the Mediterranean island.

Yvan Colonna, 51, was given a life sentence for the murder of Prefect Claude Erignac, in what has been one of the most high-profile cases in 40 years of separatist violence on the island. The former shepherd could be released on parole in 2021.

The ruling by a special Paris court upheld two lower courts’ guilty verdicts, but it does not close the book on the case as Colonna’s lawyers said that he would appeal.

“We don’t think that in France the justice system is independent enough to acquit Yvan Colonna, despite the proof that we have given of his innocence,” his lawyer Antoine Sollacaro told reporters.

Colonna was arrested in 2003 in possession of a grenade and a cartridge clip after four years in hiding.

The case against Colonna rests on statements made by members of a separatist cell who were arrested in 1999 and later convicted. They claimed Colonna was the gunman, but later retracted their accusations against him.

Like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Corsican separatist groups have a strong tradition of “omerta” or vow of silence, and witnesses involved in Corsican court cases often drop out or change their statements. (Reporting by Thierry Leveque; Writing by Leigh Thomas)